FIRST NATIONS TRADITIONAL LIFE IN THE
Country is the term often
used by First Nations people to describe the lands, waterways and seas to which
they are connected. According to the AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia,
the Hay Shire is shared by three nations and is situated on Wiradjuri, Nari
Nari and Yitha Yitha country. The Hay Local Government Area (LGA) covers an
area of 11,348 square kilometres with vast boundaries stretching more than 135km
from the Hay township at its farthest point.
The Nari Nari inhabited the
lower Murrumbidgee River region, from the junction with the Lachlan River to
the approximate vicinity of the Hay township, south to about Booroorban.
The Wiradjuri inhabited a
vast region in the central-western inland of NSW, with one edge of their range
located north and east of the Nari Nari and Yitha Yitha people, stretching
approximately to the township of Hay.
The Yitha Yitha people
inhabited the area north-west of
the lower Lachlan River, between the vicinity of Booligal township and the
junction with the Murrumbidgee.
Language/tribal borders were
not fixed. These boundaries ebbed and flowed through contact with neighbours,
the seasons and periods of drought and abundance. The close proximity to each
other also meant that people likely spoke multiple languages and dialects
(Howitt 1904; Tindale 1974; MacDonald 1983; Horton 1994).
First Nations people in the
Hay area were adept at identifying and utilising local resources. Nineteenth
century sources recorded how people relied on both water and land during
During the natural flooding
of the rivers, swamps and river flats were inundated and billabongs filled.
Large groups of people then netted and trapped fish. With shellfish and
waterfowl, fish provided a significant part of the flesh diet and relatively
small areas of land were able to support large groups of people. Canoes were
made from a single sheet of Red Gum or Black Box bark. This was propped and
moulded into the desired shape and left to season in the sun for ten to fifteen
days. Pronged fish spears doubled as a means to pole and paddle the canoes,
used to harpoon fish in areas of reedy shallow water.
As flood waters began to
subside, people began to fish in the broader reaches of the rivers using short,
stout spears. Women made weirs from wooden stakes to trap larger fish in pools
as the waters receded. Other types of fish traps were built across rivers, such
as tree trunks bridging watercourses, with interwoven brush or saplings forming
a net beneath the tree, preventing larger fish from moving on. As the river
flow dwindled and the fish became concentrated in smaller and smaller pools,
fish-poisoning was used as a last resort. River mussels were collected using the toes.
The range of methods using water resources formed part of an annual cycle of
fluctuations in river level and flow.
life on the Hay Plains had to adapt to past changes of climate and aridity.
After millions of years of drought, a wet climate and abundant landscape
emerged on the Hay Plains about 60,000 years ago. Ephemeral lakes on the plain
were filled by the ancestral Murrumbidgee River, fed by rainfall originating in
the Great Dividing Range. Full lakes, a stable climate and plentiful natural
resources lasted for 20,000 years. Aboriginal sites on the Hay Plain appear in
the archaeological record for the first time during this wet period,
characterised by extensive woodlands and abundant resources.
Then around 40,000 years ago, a drier climate emerged again. Water levels in
ephemeral lakes along the Hay Plains fluctuated for about 18,000 years, with
corresponding variations in woodland cover. About 22,000 years ago the global
climate entered an even drier, colder, glacial phase. Sea level fell 120 metres
below present and a glacier landscape developed in the Australian Alps as
conditions became cool, dry and windy. Sand dunes appeared around lakes in the
Hay Plains blowing in from the west. Life on the Hay Plain became much more
difficult to sustain.
This glacial maximum reached its peak around 20,000 years ago with average
temperatures several degrees lower than today. Plant and animal life was
significantly diminished as a result. Grasslands and shrublands expanded as the
woodland ecosystems contracted. Cold desert winds fed dust storms from the
west. Rivers fed by snowmelt continued to produce seasonal flooding along the
Murrumbidgee River. But many ephemeral lakes and creeks dried out as the Hay
Plains became more barren.
By around 18,000 years ago the glacial period was coming to an end. Sea levels
rose as rainfall increased and woodlands returned to the area. The climate
remained relatively dry as the Murrumbidgee River experienced larger flood
pulses. The glacial phase was completely over by approximately 4,000 years ago.
Alpine glaciers contracted and the Murrumbidgee River took its current
hydrological form. A relatively stable, semi-arid climate settled over the Hay
Plain which has continued into the modern era. Vegetation patterns and natural
resources became similar to the present.
mounds of the Hay Plains show that people returned to the same places years
after the climate became arid, first to cook and later to bury their dead. The
majority of mounds appear to derive from the operation of earth ovens, as they
are made up of burnt materials such as ash, charcoal and baked clay heat. Mounds
were continually dug over as each day’s oven was used. Mounds are fairly recent
in the long-term history of Australia, generally dating to the last few
thousand years. Mounds of the Hay Plains to the west are among the largest in
the continent. Developing from one ground oven, after repeated use, generation
after generation, some mounds on the Hay Plain were small, while others grew as
large as a hundred metres long and two metres high. Mounds may contain
by-products of habitation such as food debris, tools both worn out and lost,
and most commonly baked clay heat retainers. Burials are occasionally found in
mounds. Thousands of years after cooking at these mounds, later generations of
people returned to them to bury their dead in the soft ground. Large burial
mounds on the Hay Plains include Jeraly and Toogimbie with approximately one
In other seasons, land
resources became more important and food gathering activities diversified. A
range of tools and weapons were known in the area. This included spear
throwers, parrying shields, broad shields, clubs, shovels, axes, varieties of
throwing sticks, as well as trapping nets made from plant fibre cord. Women
used digging sticks to collect vegetable foods and ‘grub shovels’ or small
wooden spades were used to dig up grubs, ants and Mallee roots. Skin bags and
bark troughs were used to carry water and baskets were made from grasses,
rushes and netting.
A range of reptiles and
mammals were hunted as well as insects gathered, in particular grubs, ants and
ant eggs. Plant foods were equally as important and mostly consisted of roots
and tubers. Typha or Cumbungi tubers were eaten in late summer. The shoots were
harvested in early spring. Other edible plants included the Yam Daisy or
Murnong eaten in summer and autumn, Kurrajong seeds and roots, Acacia seeds and
swamp rushes. Grindstones and pestles were used to pound roots and mill seed.
Stone artefacts and bark
extraction scars on trees are still archaeologically visible in some locations.
These are significant objects, providing evidence of Aboriginal traditional
life in the Hay area. In 1974, the respect for First People's continuing
connection to country was recognised by NSW State legislation, protecting such
Aboriginal objects from disturbance.
As of June 2022, Hay had four
local Aboriginal organisations:
Hay Local Aboriginal Land Council
– 412 Belmore St, Hay. Phone: 6993 2243.
Nari Nari Tribal Council –
412 Belmore St, Hay. Phone: 6993 2243
Hay Aboriginal Community
Corporation Working Party - Leo Fitzpatrick, Secretary, Phone: 0466 181 122.
John "Gubba" Woods, Director, Phone:
0458 355 709 Hayacwp@gmail.com
Hay Aboriginal Medical
Service - Mon-Wed, 78 Lachlan Street, Hay. Phone:
Shire acknowledges the Nari Nari, Wiradjuri and Yitha Yitha people as the
traditional custodians of the land and waterways in which we live and work and
we pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. It is in their
footsteps that we travel these lands and waters.